Not all the action in San Diego is taking place in the city's convention center. Just a short walk away at Petco Park, Nerd Machine is hosting Nerd HQ, a free extravaganza that's also a hotbed for experiential marketing.
Though the organization works in partnership with San Diego Comic Con, it isn't affiliated with the annual convention. Instead, Nerd Machine recognizes the potential of the fan crowd and tries to offer them alternative things to do if the aisles get too crowded. Other companies, including Nerdist and Skybound's comic book The Walking Dead, have also created activities outside the main halls.
Co-founder Zachary Levi, best known for starring in NBC's cult hit Chuck, said Nerd Machine started in November 2010 as an apparel company that allowed geeks to proudly wear their nerd labels. To promote the brand, he and co-founder David Coleman decided to host a bar party where they could give away a few shirts during the July convention. Four years later, Nerd HQ has become a festival outside the main hub, complete with live performances, video games and unique hands-on experiences.
"We thought, 'We'll bring people by where we do our event, and we'll sell merch," Levi said. "What’s the best way to bring people by? Well you give them fun activities, fun activations, and as much as you can give them for free, you give them for free."
Growing past its humble bar beginnings, brands with activations at Nerd HQ this year include Intel, Internet Explorer, Maker Studios, Sega of America and Facebook. For example, Maker Studios has a stage starring its YouTube content creators, while Sega lets gamers try new titles in its area. Internet Explorer is demoing its new online platform Catan Anytime that will allow Settlers of Catan fans to play with their friends at their convenience, using the turn-based style of Words with Friends.
"It's more about informing your average consumer that Internet Explorer is not just a gateway. Most people don't think after they click that E icon. Sure, you go to your websites, but there are these amazing experiences that we can deliver because of what the Web today is," said Divya Kumar, Internet Explorer senior product marketing manager.
In addition, Facebook is featuring Mentions, a new app that allows verified celebrities and influencers to hold official conversations with fans. It also brought an Instagram photo experience so people could immediately capture the action and share it with their social circles.
"Social networking is just a huge part of life," Levi said. "We're always checking in. It's part of the experience we have. We're all sharing with people. Facebook and Instagram allowing people to record their experience makes it more memorable and more interactive."
Besides the free events, Nerd HQ has some paid offerings, like meet-and-greets, photos with celebrities and special panels that, if you manage to get tickets, are often more intimate and feature the same talent (including the cast of Orphan Black,and The Walking Dead, Joss Whedon and Nathan Fillion) that are seen at the convention center. Each activity costs about $20 a pop, but all proceeds go to Operation Smile, a nonprofit that works to provide surgeries for kids' cleft lip and other facial deformity issues. Since it started its fundraising arm, Nerd Machine has raised about $450,000 for the charity. "We always wanted to activate the Nerd Machine brand, but we thought, 'What’s a great way to get fans and celebrities to interact in a way and feel awesome about it while raising money for charity?'" Coleman said.
For the foreseeable future, Nerd Machine has no problem being the main event away from the main event.
"Everybody is here to come to Comic Con," Coleman pointed out. "We're just trying to give them something fun outside of that."